Activists hold candles during a vigil on the night after the first day of the trial of Zé Rodrigues and his brother, Lindonjonson Silva, and Alberto Nascimento, in the murder of Amazon forest activists Zé Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo. On 15 April 2013, Lindonjonson was found guilty and sentenced to 42 years in jail, Alberto Nascimento was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years in jail, but Zé Rodrigues was acquitted. Photo: VICE

By Paulo Padilha and Felipe Milanez
15 April 2013

(VICE) – The city of Marabá was founded on 6 April 1913, in the southeastern edge of the Amazon rainforest on a narrow strip of land where the rivers Tocantins and Itacaiunas meet. For the first several decades of its existence, the city’s economy was dependent on the abundant Brazil nut trees in the surrounding forest, but starting in the 1960s, the forest was cut down to make way for pasture.

Since then, Marabá’s main claim to fame has been as one of the most violent places in Brazil. Last week, as the town geared up to celebrate its centennial, it was also wrapping up the trial of the killers of environmental activist couple Zé Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo, the case VICE covered in Toxic: Amazon. But instead of closing the book on this violent chapter of the region’s history, Marabá’s justice system has given the green light to those who think murder is the best way to solve a problem.

Zé Claudio and Maria came from generations of nut foragers, people who made a meager living selling Brazil nuts in Marabá while getting most of their food from the forest. In the late 90s, the couple settled in a newly created extractive reserve called Praia Alta-Piranheira. The reserve was made exclusively for extractivists like them; logging and ranching the land is illegal and its occupants are expected to make a living collecting rubber, nuts, fruits, and other forest products in a sustainable fashion. However, from its inception the reserve had been the target of loggers and ranchers hungry for one of the few remaining patches of forest in the region. As a result, Zé Claudio and Maria became increasingly active in protecting the area, constantly reporting illegal activities to the authorities, receiving threats from loggers, ranchers, and charcoal producers—and eventually being murdered for their defense of their land. Their deaths would have gone unnoticed had they not happened on the same day Brazil's congress was voting on revisions to the country’s forest code, and the attention the case received led to unusually fast investigations by Brazilian standards.

In the days after Toxic: Amazon was made, investigators looked into the local loggers and charcoal producers who constantly threatened the couple, but found no evidence that they were responsible for the murders. Once those avenues had been exhausted, they started to investigate a rancher named Zé Rodrigues, who had recently moved into the settlement. Rodrigues had illegally acquired two plots of land in the area and forcibly removed the three families who had been living there. Those families came to Zé Claudio for help, and this is when the couple became the target of Zé Rodrigues’ rage.

Judge Murilo Lemos, who also presided over the trial, twice refused to issue warrants for the arrests of Zé Rodrigues and his brother, Lindonjonson Silva, in the killing of Zé Claudio and Maria, caving only when pressured by human rights groups and the state’s judiciary. Zé Rodrigues was arrested for ordering the crime, while Lindonjonson and Alberto Nascimento were arrested for carrying it out. DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime matched one of the brothers, and a witness reported seeing Lindonjonson leaving the area soon after the murders occurred. Telephone wiretaps linked Zé Rodrigues to the assassination plot, as well as clearly establishing his motive.

In the months leading up to the trial, Laisa, Maria’s sister, received death threats, with gunmen at one point shooting one of her dogs as a warning. The government reacted to these threats in as slow a fashion as possible, setting up an audience for Laisa with the witness-protection program in July even though the trial had already been set for April. Further complicating the matter, INCRA, the government’s land redistribution body, granted Zé Rodrigues the rights to the lot he had illegally acquired. This was either an act of extreme incompetence or extreme corruption, or possibly both. Not only is it illegal to buy or sell the title to land that has been distributed by the government, but cattle ranching is prohibited in an extractive reserve, which is exactly what Zé Rodrigues intended to do on this land. So INCRA extended the conflict to well beyond the trial, since the federal government will now challenge their decision and, should they strip Rodrigues of the title, the blame will be placed squarely on Laisa. The decision also played into the hands of the defense, who could now claim in court that Zé Rodrigues was just a simple farmer who had recently been granted a piece of land on which to work, and who had nothing to do with the larger groups that wanted Zé Claudio killed. Outside the courthouse, on the day of the trial, one INCRA employee talked to me about Zé Claudio: “The man was a monster. I should know, I spent eight days with him on his lot.”  [more]

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